Editor’s note: I played this game on the Xbox, but it has also been released on PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s GameCube. As far as I am aware, there are no differences in story or gameplay between the three versions, only technical differences in graphic and sound quality, as well as button configuration to accommodate the different controllers for each console. Also note that there is another game entitled “The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age” for Game Boy Advance, but that this game is entirely different from the game I am reviewing.
One RPG to rule them all…
What happens when you merge the gameplay of one of the most popular RPGs and the storyline of one of the most epic books and films ever made? All recent studies indicate that the result of such a merge would be Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, a game that you would think has very little going for it in creativity, but everything going for it in popular form and style. Except, that’s not entirely the case.
The truth of the matter is that this game has ‘borrowed’ enough features from Final Fantasy X that Square Enix could sue over some form of intellectual plagiarism. This fact will become all too clear as I cover the gameplay aspect, but for now, just trust me. Of course, though there is imitation going on, the game still suffers from a number of problems. Furthermore, while the Lord of the Rings story is indeed epic, you will come to learn that The Third Age is enveloped in a whole new set of characters that had never (to my knowledge) been mentioned by Tolkien. While this was creative, and a good idea, the result is less than satisfactory.
The Third Age is developed by Electronic Arts, a company that, until now, knew next to nothing about creating an RPG. Their first attempt at making one has all the marks of an amateur effort, though Electronic Arts is certainly not an amateur company. If I were to properly describe exactly what it is about the game that shows a lack of real ingenuity, even if it is still a “solid” game, I shall have to break down the game’s merits by category.
It’s safe to say that a company as large as EA isn’t going to release a game with anything less than state-of-the-art graphics in such a competitive market. On this level, as it seems to be with most games these days, The Third Age doesn’t disappoint.
Environments, both outdoor and indoor, are well-detailed. Because most of the game is spent “tracking” the fellowship, environments are very intentionally rendered to look like the environments of the movie. Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith are especially true to form, which pleased me quite a bit. Some of the “new” areas (that is, areas that weren’t depicted in the films) lacked in design, especially some of the outdoor grassy areas, but that wasn’t too big of a drawback.
Character designs are fairly well-done. Facial expressions are slightly lacking in the variety department, but the faces themselves are some of the best you can get for the in-game PS2 experience. I felt that more work could have been put into the faces of the already-known characters, especially the in-game Gandalf; this is just a personal complaint, however.
EA boasts that in The Third Age, there are “over 1,500,000 armor combinations,” which doesn’t sound all too important, until you recognize that in this game (unlike many other RPGs), whatever armor you equip, be it shield, helmet, chestplate, even rings and broaches, it will appear on your character in the overworld and in battle. The differences in armor design are also very significant: it isn’t just a color-change on the same piece of armor we’re talking about. Simply stated, a boatload of work went into designing weapons, armor, and accessories. Gamers should take note of this fact, because a lot of RPG developers are not putting nearly enough work into this aspect of their games.
The most beautiful, and most unoriginal, graphical feature in this game is a series of 109 cut-scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. These scenes are cut up and re-hashed to fit the new story of Berethor, a previously-unknown Gondorian soldier who is also the protagonist of the game. These movie sequences, while beautiful, wouldn’t have much going for them if it weren’t for the wonderful work of Ian McKellen, which brings me to the next topic at hand.
The red horn of Helm Hammerhand will sound in the deep one last time!
For each of the 109 scenes from the movie, “Gandalf” (Ian McKellen) has added original voice-acting monologues to speak directly to you, the main character, Berethor. This is by and large the most compelling feature of the game: it certainly draws you in, making you feel as if you are really a part of Middle Earth. Everyone I’ve talked to about the game agrees with me that this one aspect of the game, especially because these scenes are so frequent, makes the game at the very least a worthy rental, if not a purchase at a “used” price.
Unfortunately, the performance of the other characters’ voice actors are generally not up-to-par. This could stem from the fact that there is relatively little dialogue to begin with, or that the characters do not have much opportunity to talk in this fast-paced game. Something about it felt unnatural to me from the start, and that same feeling stayed with me until near the end (though I was impressed with some of the more dramatic voice-acting near the end of the game.)
Let’s see, what else comes in the sound department? Oh yes, music! My piano teacher always told this pun about baroque music: “if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it,” she’d say. Well, it seems that EA took the advice of Mrs. Jones, because every last second of music in this game was tracked and looped from the scores to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. While this is an obvious step (it lowers cost of production, and the music is already great), I will say that, if they had made some arrangements at the very least — y’know, put SOME effort into making something new — I would’ve been happier. As it stands, I thought the music was still appropriately placed, and I certainly did enjoy it.
Sound effects were high quality. I can’t complain. I give sound a high grade primarily because of Ian McKellen and the impressive movie score, both of which are no merit to EA themselves.
Help to turn the tide.
Like I said earlier, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is such a Final Fantasy X clone that it almost hurts. To give you an idea, I’ll list some (just some, not all) of the more innovative things done in Final Fantasy X that were blatantly stolen by EA to create a higher-quality game.
In battle: “turn order” menu (which has glitches with enemies being “immune” to delay attacks), three characters maximum in battle, character switching within battle with no time cost, similar skills and spells (delay turn, auto-life), and an overdrive bar (slightly varying: one for the whole party, called “Perfect Mode” when filled).
In overworld: similar feel and control, the exact same navigation map in the corner of the screen, and no “world map.”
Okay, so it’s not entirely like Final Fantasy X, but it’s the closest thing to X I’ve played outside of X itself (in some regards, The Third Age is more like Final Fantasy X than Final Fantasy X-2 is). Here are some of the differences: there is no sphere grid. When a character gains a level, points can be assigned to one of the five traditional pen-and-paper RPG categories: strength, spirit, constitution, speed, and dexterity. There is no charisma because there are no towns or shops in this game. This allotment system allows the player to customize each character in whatever way he or she wishes, which is certainly enjoyable.
Various fighting and magic skills are gained only by using other skills in that category (sword, spirit, bow, ranger) over and over and over. You gain “1 SP” every time you do something: a new skill may take anywhere between 5 and 100 points to learn (usually somewhere in the 20s for the earlier skills). The skills are offered through a “skill tree;” every time you learn one skill in a two-level tree, you can either learn the other skill or jump down to one from the next tier (higher-level skills, taking more SP to learn). Oftentimes, a character will have a final skill below all of these two-option tiers, but to unlock it, all the other skills must be learned first. Note that skills are character-specific, but some skills are the same for each character, with a slight name change to make it more fitting.
My single largest gripe with gameplay is that the game comes with difficulty settings. This can be enough of a hassle in any RPG, but the problem is, in many senses, escalated when this difficulty setting can be changed back and forth at any point in the game. The options are easy, medium, and difficult. When a player can switch back and forth between difficulty levels, the lesson learned is that there is no reward for playing on “hard mode” (many games will give added storylines or different endings for completing the game on a higher difficulty level). Why not just play on easy?
The answer probably comes that, if you play the whole game on easy, you will not fight enough battles to learn all of the skills for each character. If you are really so concerned with gaining each of the six character’s skills, then I suppose playing on the hardest mode is the best option.
Of course, one can play on hard through the game, and then when the player encounters a “tough boss,” let’s just switch back to easy! The ability to be tempted in such a way is simply irresistible, and it leaves many gamers feeling unsatisfied; the accomplishment was cheap. Of course, this does make the game more “accessible,” or as some of my closer friends like to put it, “n00b-friendly.” So, if that’s the kind of game you want, here it is. It doesn’t suit my taste at all, however.
The game comes in nine chapters, each of which contain certain “quests” to complete. Each quest completion is worth some percentage in the game, an idea recently used in Final Fantasy X-2. Most of the quests are mandatory, while a few are optional, though very difficult to miss. Some quests are as simple as finding and opening a treasure chest, while others take the length of the whole chapter to complete. The “chapters” are simply different areas in Middle Earth, and after completing a chapter, one can re-visit the place using the “travel menu” from any save point. However, there is virtually no reason to go back, except maybe to find some missed treasure chests or complete some inane optional quest.
After the completion of a chapter, a bonus “evil mode” is unlocked in that chapter, where the gamer can experience killing the good guys from the side of the bad guys. There are rewards for completing these four or five quick battles per chapter, usually in the form of rare weapons or artifacts. It was fun for me to learn and use all of the enemy’s skills, and some of those evil mode battles took quite a bit of strategy (“who to kill first, Berethor or Aragorn?”) I was accustomed to losing more than once in attempts to complete each chapter’s “evil mode.”
Battles tend to become boring on easy and tedious on difficult. I suppose medium is “just right,” but even then the difficulty felt somewhat arbitrary; some battles were a joke, others were simply too hard for even the experienced gamer (that’d be yours truly).
Overall, I didn’t think gameplay was this game’s strong suit, though EA made a fairly noble effort. However, my biggest complaint about the game is yet to come.
This is a foe beyond any of you!
“Control” should hardly be an issue in a traditional turn-based RPG. A game deserves a score of a 90% or better if the control is done smoothly, and there is very little to deal with. Generally what you have is walking and camera in the overworld, and then some menus (in and out of battle). If everything goes wrong, that is a real problem.
Everything went wrong. Control in the Third Age is truly a foe beyond any of us.
The main menu, where the player can view and edit stats, select skills, equip armor, change various options (including difficulty, right in the middle of the game), and view “epic scenes” (movies), is one of the hardest menus I’ve ever navigated in my history of RPG-playing (as of this game, I believe I have just passed the fifty mark). Now, granted I was playing the Xbox version, and the Xbox controller doesn’t entirely lend itself to RPG play, but using the white and black buttons to switch from character to character felt entirely unnatural. Using L and R to change from the stats menu to the equipment menu made no sense. Equipping armor, especially elfstones, was a chore that left my head hurting. I hated it, and if I weren’t feeling happier today, I might have just given this game an even lower score than I already did on control.
The working of the camera in the overworld was atrocious. There were options in the main menu to change the way one looked around, but nothing seemed to help me. I could never, ever find what I wanted to view using the right-analog-stick camera in less than twenty seconds. That is an enormous problem that should have been fixed.
Walking in the overworld wasn’t nearly as bad, though when trying to move in accordance with the navigation map, it was slightly more confusing than in Final Fantasy X, so I was, again, left a little unsatisfied in this regard.
But I suppose I should give credit where credit is due. Control in the battle menu was strikingly easy, especially in comparison to the main menu. I never had a single problem navigating my way through the battle menu, and there are a fair number of options in battle.
Put that together, and out of four major aspects of control, I am only left satisfied with one. My score, then, is quite gracious, and I hope others would agree.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…
…except for the fact that Frodo isn’t in this game. Furthermore, characters like Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Faramir, and Eowyn are “guest characters,” only making the occasional appearance in your party for battle. That’s right, the plotline in this game revolves around a new group of heroes that travel slightly behind the Fellowship and eventually come to help fight in the battles of Helm’s Deep, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, and finally the fields of Pelennor. You are Berethor, a Gondorian soldier who turns up in Eregion with a slight bit of amnesia: you know you’re looking for Boromir, and you know you can hear Gandalf’s voice in your head (hence the movie sequences with the new voice-acting), but you don’t know why. You are initially joined by Idrial, one of Galadriel’s elves. As you play through the game, four more characters join your team: Elegost, one of the Dunedain rangers; Hadhod, a dwarf who also lost many dear to him in Moria; Morwen, a female villager of Rohan that has a “secret past” intertwined with Berethor (I’m paraphrasing the instruction booklet on that one); and Eaoden, one of Rohan’s riders (though he joins you without a horse, only a spear). These six characters are given instruction by Gandalf to essentially clean up the mess left behind by the Fellowship and help out where help is needed.
So that’s what you do for two-thirds of the game, and then out of nowhere Berethor’s “secret past” is revealed. It’s so basic and uninspiring that I wouldn’t feel any guilt for “ruining” it for you here and now, but then again, I won’t bore you with the details anyway. Suffice it to say, you were confused, and by the end of the game, you’re done being confused. Hooray.
Oh, and did you notice that Idrial and Morwen are both girls? That’s right, expect a love triangle! This sub-plot unfolds in a series of, oh…three or four dialogues, each of which lasts a meager thirty seconds. Here, I’ll lay this one out for you, because this one’s even more fun to spoil:
Girl A: You have my love and gratitude.
Girl B: Love and gratitude is great, but I want to kill orcs and get revenge.
Berethor: That is so hot.
Girl A: I am jealous.
(some more gameplay takes place)
Berethor: I still love you too. (attempts to kiss Girl A).
Girl A: No, you are destined for Girl B.
Berethor: (awkward silence…)
(now near the end of the game)
Girl B: I’m in big trouble.
Berethor: I will save you and kiss you, because Girl A told me I’m destined for you.
Girl B: Sounds like a plan. (Berethor kisses Girl B).
I might have enjoyed this part of the game if it had been reasonably developed, but it wasn’t. As a standard Final Fantasy fanatic, I’ve seen much better love triangles, and I’ve seen much more development of a relationship. In this game, Berethor never truly develops a relationship with either of these two women, so the connection made is minimal. Someone over at EA needs to learn how to tell good love stories before trying to incorporate one into their games.
Story is generally revealed quite directly; either Gandalf or someone else just randomly tells you something about yourself that you should’ve known but didn’t here and there throughout the game. Not the most intricate or worthwhile way to tell a story, but I’ve never made a game, so maybe I shouldn’t speak.
Regardless, considering I finished this game in fifteen hours, it seems that there wasn’t much that could be done with any reasonable character development. And considering the “epic plotline” is nothing new, and it’s told best in the books anyway, it’s not scoring too many points on that account either.
Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment.
Well, I won’t deal out any death, but I am ready to give my judgment. Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is by no means a first-rate game. It is a good RPG for the casual gamer and maybe for the Lord of the Rings modern-media fan, but anyone who seriously enjoyed, say, Xenogears will have an incredibly difficult time enjoying this little scrap of meat. It’s pretty, it sounds nice, and it has all the trappings of a Lord of the Rings product, but it ultimately lacks substance. Again, recognizing that EA isn’t entirely too experienced in the world of RPG creation, this isn’t too bad of a first attempt. However, I must say that paying retail price for a game like this is simply a disastrous move. There is minimal replay value, and it is already a fairly short game. There are better games with which to spend your time. It’s worth a rental or two, or purchased for a discount or used price at best. Again, this is just my opinion, but I do think I know what I’m talking about when I say this isn’t one of the world’s finest RPGs.